Just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy
Veganism has never held such cultural cachet, but ‘plant-based’ isn’t necessarily shorthand for good for you. As fried chicken, mac ’n’ cheese and doughnuts get the vegan treatment, WH puts their nutrition labels under the microscope
Swing by on any evening of the week and you’ll find Temple Of Seitan jumping. It’s Thursday and the mouthwatering aroma of fried chicken hangs in the air, tables are crowded and trays are piled high with burgers, sticky wings, mac ’n’ cheese and loaded fries. It could be any fast food joint – except for the fact that no animals were harmed in the making of these meals. ‘People think vegans just eat hummus and avocados, but look at this place,’ says Kate, 22, taking a bite out of her burger. She pauses to swallow, and her friend Amy chimes in. ‘I wouldn’t have been seen dead in Mcdonald’s when I ate meat, but this place is ethical, so it’s cool.’ This is veganism 2.0. The mung bean-munching, ultra-alt reputation long held by vegans is no more. There are now more than 3.5 million plant-based eaters in the UK, a 700% spike since 2016, and vegan barbecuing was market analyst Mintel’s leading food and drink trend this summer. Supermarkets are chasing the vegan pound by stocking aisles with animal-free foods that scream convenience. Consumer research group Kantar says spending on vegan foods in January 2018 – including meat alternatives like plant-based sausages and burgers – was up £30 million year-on-year. Waitrose has broadened its vegetarian and vegan range by 60% and Tesco has even hired a director of plant-based innovation.
But while going vegan used to be an endeavour that necessitated getting more creative in your own kitchen – swapping the beef in your stir-fry for tofu, or navigating your way around an aubergine – now, veganism has jumped into bed with fast food. ‘Chicken’ made from a protein called seitan; ‘pulled pork’ made from jackfruit and macaroni in a cashewbased ‘cheese’ sauce – it’s all up for grabs. The vegans of Manchester are lapping up baskets of plant-based burgers, hot dogs and fries at V Rev; in Bristol, you can chase a vegan burrito with cheesy nachos at VX; over in Leeds, Vegan Fried Chicken has become wildly popular, while The Burger Garden in Sheffield is dishing up its savoury fried faves with freakshakes – blended non-dairy ice cream and vegan whipped cream topped with Oreo biscuits or deconstructed banoffee pie, plus lashings of sticky strawberry sauce. Animal product or otherwise, the nutritionally savvy know that white refined carbs and highly salty food is not the way – so why is it we’re all feasting on this junk like it’s any different from the stuff you’d find under the Golden Arches?
‘For too long, veganism has been seen as a bit worthy, but new-gen vegans refuse to compromise on indulgence and fun,’ says Amy Thorne, co-founder of food awards group The Young British Foodies. ‘Now, you can eat vegan and still be the life and soul of the party.’ Which is all well and good – if you know what’s going on in the kitchen. Of the vegan junk food outlets WH approached for their nutritional information, none were forthcoming. So it’s on you to unpick the type of processes that go into turning one of your five-a-day, like jackfruit (a relation of the fig), into the kind of finger-licking fare you’d sell your nan for on a hangover.
Let’s start with vegan ‘chicken’, aka seitan, the rise and rise of which is down to Temple Of Seitan owner and innovator Pat O’shea. The former Melbournite bemoaned the lack of exciting vegan foodie options when he moved to London, before he started selling fun ’n’ filthy animal-free eats from a food truck, which then turned into a restaurant – and spawned a host of copycats. Covered in breadcrumbs and nestled among pickles, relish and vegan cheese, a seitan ‘fillet’ looks appetising enough. But how it comes about? By washing the starch from wheat dough to leave you with insoluble gluten, an elastic mass which is shaped, fried and customarily served up with sugar-laden sauces. Tasty, yes; good for the body, not so much. ‘It has some iron and some B vitamins, but not in great quantities and, certainly as a meat
‘I’ll absent-mindedly work my way through a pack of Oreos – just because they’re vegan’
replacement, nutritionally it’s not as beneficial,’ says dietitian Sophie Medlin.
‘If you were to slice your seitan and throw it in a stir-fry, it wouldn’t be unhealthy, but once it’s been flavoured and had lots of sodium added and things like stabilisers and binders, then it becomes a highly processed food – and that’s not something you should be including in your diet. You could argue that it’s even more processed than the average high street burger, because at least the chicken or beef, though not likely to be high quality, is closer to its natural form.’
Then there’s mac ’n’ cheese. Any chance switching from dairy to a vegan alternative upgrades this from junk food to healthy fare? Not really. Dietitian and BDA spokesperson Anna Groom points out that while a serving of dairy-free ‘cheese’ may be lower in calories than, say, Cheddar, the saturated fat and salt content tend to be higher. Vegan cheeses are often made from cashews, which are full of good stuff, such as vitamins E, C and B6, along with minerals like magnesium and zinc. But to turn those raw kernels into melted cheese atop mac involves a ton of processing. ‘The cashews are converted into nut milk, strained to form a solid mass, then flavoured, potentially with a lot of salt. There will also be a lot of additives like emulsifier and setting agents used to change the texture,’ says Medlin.
The unfortunate consequence is that the dietary prowess of cashews doesn’t translate to the plate. It’s a similar story with jackfruit. ‘A starchy carbohydrate, similar to a potato, it naturally contains vitamins A, C and B6, alongside essential minerals,’ explains Medlin. But, if you’re in the UK, you’re not plucking it from the tree – British vegans are going nuts for the tinned variety. Its stringy, super-absorbent consistency means, when paired with a good marinade, it does a decent impression of pulled pork, but valuable nutrients can be lost during the tinning process, especially vitamin C. ‘It’s just carbohydrate drowned in sugary sauce,’ adds Medlin. ‘A portion of vegan “pulled pork” can contain 10% of your sugar RDA and a third of your recommended salt intake.’ And that’s before you add any sides.
Adam Stansbury, aka the Plant Powered PT (theplantpoweredpt.com), is troubled that vegan junk food enjoys a ‘health halo’ at odds with the bad rep of equivalent meat-laden dishes. ‘It’s disingenuous to suggest that a vegan diet is automatically healthy. If you’re eating triple-cooked chips and deepfried fake meat, it’s no different from going to Mcdonald’s.’ Yet many believe vegan junk to be superior. ‘Psychological marketing hooks into your emotions, motivation, identity and core beliefs,’ explains Melanie Phelps, chartered counselling psychologist and practitioner for the National Centre for Eating Disorders. ‘With vegan fast or processed foods, this can be as simple as claiming the product is plant-based, organic or ethically sourced. When the consumer chooses what they believe to be a superior product, they feel superior about their choice.’ That a nutritionally savvy vegan will eat a doughnut just because it’s plantbased highlights something experts call ‘restraint theory’. ‘It suggests that when we overly restrict food and food groups, we will most likely end up eating unhealthily in terms of both the volume and types of food,’ says Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist and author of The Shrinkology Solution (£9.99, Quadrille). In other words, embark on a diet that necessitates drawing up ‘can eat’ and ‘can’t eat’ columns and if something falls into the former, you’re more likely to eat it. Take WH Commissioning Editor Roisín Dervish-o’kane, 27, who, within weeks of trying out plant-based life, was picking up packets of Oreos and Bourbon biscuits
(both vegan, FYI) with her weekly shop. ‘I’ve always tried to eat mindfully, if not healthily, but because I can eat these treats within the parameters of a vegan diet, I’m absentmindedly snacking my way through packets at a time, despite knowing they’re doing nothing for me nutritionally.’ It’s likely a driving factor behind the rise of stacked soya burgers and triple-fried bean chilli cheese fries. So if you’re chowing down more calories and refined carbs than you ever did before, take note. ‘If your motivation for dietary change is primarily for health, and a vegan diet is compromising your nutrition, then it’s time to step back and think about what a healthy and sustainable diet really looks like to you,’ says Dr Arroll.
Fast food aside, the simple fact still stands that transitioning to a vegan diet without the correct advice can be detrimental to health – something Imogen Curry, 30, found out first-hand last year. ‘I’m a qualified PT and have undertaken nutrition courses, so I thought, with the help of savvy Instagram scrolling and internet research, I could design a satisfactory vegan diet for myself – but I was wrong,’ she recalls. ‘I was obsessed with getting enough protein, but ended up overloading on fats and carbs through sheer boredom. My meals were processed vegan substitutes alongside rice and broccoli.
Yes, I lost weight, but I wasn’t sleeping well
‘Whatever your dietary choices, take control of your nutrition and learn how to cook’
and my mood and energy levels were terrible, making me binge whenever I crashed. In the early days, I’d even turn to meat and dairy products. I knew it wasn’t sustainable, so I sought help from PT Adam Stansbury and now my diet has completely changed. I understand my protein needs and get plenty from tofu, beans and the vegan protein shake I have each day. I’m eating way more fruits, vegetables and different flavours – and I’m leaner and stronger.’
‘Vegan bloggers and Instagrammers need to stop sending the message that a plant-based diet is inherently perfect,’ says Medlin. ‘There are risks – the main one being vitamin B12 deficiency. The human body cannot function without it. Early signs of deficiency are a tingling in your fingers and toes, a lack of concentration and mood changes, but eventually it can lead to paranoia and delusions.’ You’ll find B12 in plant-based milks, soy products and breakfast cereals that have been fortified with it, not fake chicken and vegan cheesy chips. And if you want hard evidence to help you sidestep said chips, research in
The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition has shown that eating two or three portions of French fries – or any fried potato – a week can double your risk of mortality.
Swap them for potatoes cooked any other way and the association disappears.
Keeping it real
Of course, the odd bit of ‘dirty munch’ won’t kill you, but the fact that it’s plant-based doesn’t make it any worthier, so focus instead on making your everyday diet as balanced as possible. ‘Whatever your dietary choices, you need to take control of your nutrition and learn to cook, rather than relying on convenience products,’ says Stansbury. ‘Eat an array of different-coloured fruits and vegetables, plan, prep and cook. Have a vegan doughnut or a vegan pizza once a week if you want to, but don’t rely on them. Everything in moderation – including moderation. It’s no different from the advice I would give to people eating meat.’ And choose your protein sources wisely.
‘Soy is a good source and provides all of your amino acids,’ says Medlin. ‘And lupin beans have a similar nutritional profile to peanuts – they’re more of a naturally occurring food than, say, seitan, so have a better balance.’
Nutritionist Alice Mackintosh believes that tempeh, an Indonesian staple that, like tofu, is made from fermented soybeans – but with the whole bean retained – is an underappreciated winner. ‘Tempeh is a great choice in terms of overall health, offering a complete protein source alongside fibre, minerals and vitamins,’ she says. ‘I still wouldn’t recommend tempeh as your only protein source, but, as far as meat replacements go, it’s the best choice.’ And so to our old friend, the aubergine.